Taking the Drama Out of High School

This is a post for the School Days series, which solicits submissions from undergraduate theatermakers from around the country and beyond. This series is curated by Thea Rodgers.

There is a violent epidemic that is silently ravaging high schools across the country, and its name is censorship. An increasingly large number of high school theater departments across the United States are winding up in the news and it’s not due to rave reviews. A quick Google search reveals some shocking ignorance. Take, for example, The John Jay High School in Cross River, New York, which made headlines in 2007 after banning the use of the word “vagina” in their reading of The Vagina Monologues, or The Trumbull High School in Trumbull, Connecticut, where, just last week administrators abruptly cancelled a production of Rent weeks before it was to be staged because it was too “racy,” or—my personal favorite—The Green Valley High School in Las Vegas, where parents took the school to court over their production of The Laramie Project on account of its homosexual themes.

circle of students sitting onstage
Green Valley High students, during a read-through of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. Photo by Bill Hughes.

As I look towards the end of my senior year in high school I can’t help but think of the many times the plays I’ve worked on have had to be censored, or “cleaned up,” as some school administrators so eloquently sugarcoat. I’ve seen productions of God of Carnage, Red, and even Neil Simon’s harmless Laughter On The 23rd Floor edited to ensure that no one was “offended.”

Censorship of this kind not only focuses on nixing any swear words (because, you know, we high schoolers aren’t familiar with them) but also includes removing sexually explicit references or scenes (because, why would we want to encourage a conversation about the complexities of sex in high school?). However, while these administrators have successfully pushed their shows more toward a PG rating, they have created a far greater problem. If a high school’s production of Rent has been cancelled, that director certainly isn't going to push for a David Mamet play next season. These high school administrators are prohibiting their employees and their students from taking risks, while simultaneously sheltering them from great (and more mature) theater. These administrators, through censorship, have created a culture of bland choices that fail to fulfill any sort of educational goals.

Censorship causes theater departments to live in fear. Throughout Boston high schools it has become glaringly apparent that I am not the only student suffering from the sterilizing of high school theater. Why aren't more high schools producing David Mamet plays, or Neil LaBute, Yasmina Reza, John Logan, or Rajiv Joseph, and thereby exposing the students and the school community to new works? Because they’re too busy with Beauty and the Beast, Seussical, and The Wizard of Oz. Don’t take my word for it—indulge yourself with Playbill’s Most-Performed Plays and Musicals in High Schools.

Theater, if anything is a reflection of the modern zeitgeist and to shelter students from the “real” goings on of the world is simply illogical. High school is a tumultuous time driven by hormones, mixed with anxieties and confusion. The last thing any of us in high school can relate to is The King and I, which, might I add, couldn’t be more outdated and racist, but still we do it. High school should be a time when we push students outside their comfort zones.

To be fair, this censorship is not entirely the schools’ fault. Schools are most of the time looking out for themselves, especially private schools. All it takes is one upset parent to take to Facebook after seeing a production of The Laramie Project and pull their kid out of there; costing the school God knows how many thousands. These are kids that go home at the end of the day and engage their growing brain with “Teen Mom,” or “Teen Mom 2,” or the always enlightening “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Believe me, I know, I have these friends, and their parents don’t seem to mind the televised sexual abuse of women or that their son’s favorite song is “Niggas in Paris.” Now, are you trying to tell me that a Pulitzer Prize winning play like Glengarry Glenn Ross is more offensive than whatever bunk Bravo is brainwashing their audiences with? Theater allows its actors and its audience to engage with topics like sexuality and racism in more meaningful and serious ways.

All it takes is one upset parent to take to Facebook after seeing a production of The Laramie Project and pull their kid out of there; costing the school God knows how many thousands. These are kids that go home at the end of the day and engage their growing brain with “Teen Mom,” or “Teen Mom 2,” or the always enlightening “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” 

The logical question now is, why? Why bother creating an uproar in high school? Why “infect” a stable community with vulgarity and maturity? Because important themes likes racism, sexism, even existentialism, that high school students battle on a daily basis, are being neglected and suppressed. And it’s because we have no forum to openly talk about them. Theater conjures up emotions like no other art form, emotions that high schoolers are often afraid and discouraged to talk about. It is the job of high schools to encourage these very conversations. Take Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park; the play tackles the issue of racism in a modern, intelligent, and humorous way. It may be vulgar, but that didn’t stop it from winning a Pulitzer Prize, and it shouldn’t stop high school theaters from producing it and reaching a broader audience.

But what is the result of all this “risk taking” and “mature theatre?” By taking on new plays school administration can appeal to a new audience. The jocks and athletes of high school are not going to want anything to do with the latest production of Guys and Dolls, but I’d bet they’d be interested in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rajiv Joseph’s play about the horrors of the Iraq war couldn’t be more appealing to a group of adolescent boys, while at the same time incredibly informative. By being daring and thoughtful, high schools can select shows that both engage and educate their audiences. And at the end of the day isn’t that all any parent wants their child to do at school? To actively engage their brain, discover a new piece of dramatic literature, and learn something.

It is time for high schools to stop hiding behind Rogers & Hammerstein and embrace the great new works of American theater that teenagers are so hungry for. It is time for high schools to produce plays that curse like a bloody sailor, produce plays that have drug and alcohol references, produce plays that tackle sexually explicit content, and produce plays that a high school student’s education is insufficient without; the type of education that can only come from self discovery. It is time to properly educate high school students and give them a better understanding of vulgarity and how it can be constructively used in literature, to highlight issues of characters and add thematic depth. Teach us drug awareness. Tie in a lesson on safe sex. Do Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award winning Tribes and teach your students about Deaf culture. Hell, do The Goat, or Who is Sylvia and teach us about the dangers of bestiality. Don’t steer away from plays that tackle, “racy” or “edgy” material. Tackle them, be audacious, and make something great!

 

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I think you make a compelling argument for your case. I was a high school theatre teacher before moving into a university setting and teaching theatre education. It is your job as a student to argue for your rights and the freedom to explore the world and express yourself. The school's position is that your parents are responsible for raising you and if they have a say in the kind of literature and art that you experience as school. The drama teacher is responsible for teaching you about the various approaches to the art of theatre. So the content of the literature in productions is not the focus of a high school drama program is less important than learning production skills, time management, organization and collaboration. No body in theatre can produce any play they choose. There are always obstacles to production, whether it is budget, personnel, facilities etc. Many high school theatre's produce very edgy theatre. It depends on the standards of the community in which the production is being presented. This does not negate your desire to create relevant art. Learn your craft, become an artist and then you can communicate the themes and ideas that are important to you.

Jack, I thank you and applaud you for taking such a strong stance and speaking out on plays and ideas you are so passionate about. Indeed, censorship is a deep and complicated issue. As a high school theatre teacher I have a number of questions to pose: when choosing to perform edgier works, what is the intention? Does a play need be racy or controversial to provide a challenge to artists and audiences? While certain works might attract new audiences and student participants, they might also push others away, so what is the cost of such choices - which experience is preferred? Should there be differences between plays studied in class and plays performed for the public? There is no easy answer to any of these questions. What I love to remind myself (and my students) on a daily basis, is that art is subjective, and will always be interpreted differently. While I embrace such subjectivity, and find it endlessly exciting, it is a constant reminder that something I love might make the person next to me exceptionally uncomfortable, and vise-verse. Thereby returning to a foundational question - what are the goals and intentions of educational theatre?

You must also consider things from the school's side. More than any timein American educational history, schools exist in a "the customer is always right" state, whereby schools cow-tow to the demands of parents. This is for fear of legal action or bad press for the most part. Schools do not wish to fight expensive court battles and hate bad press, because in the end, education whether public or private is still a business and acertain image and reputation on the school's part need to be upheld. I don't agree with it and I'm sure several school administrators hate it as well, but when we exist in a school system whereby one accusation from a student or parent can end an educator's career, schools and teachers will always play it on the safe side. And on a personal opinion, though I have read Glengarry Glen Ross with my theatre students (I teach at an arts high school with a thankfully low threshold for any kind of censorship), I would hate seeing them perform it. I think teenagers screaming the F-bomb at one another with such consistency is just tacky and unattractive. Not censorship, just personal taste.

You know...I have very, very mixed feelings about thisissue. I understand and agree with AJ'sPOV. I am also a very passionateadvocate for Theatre education as early and as often as possible. Having said that, I too don't know if it'salso necessary for high school students to have access to and option to perform plays in the theatre canonthat might be far beyond their level of maturity. Many of the issues the aforementioned playscontained may have not been parentally addressed with these students athome. Many parents may feel that havingissues these plays present or any number of them addressed at school beyondtraditional educational topics is inappropriate. There is also the issue of only treadinginside the boundaries of established educational curricula. Sexual identity,bestiality and other topics allowing students an excuse to exhibit less thanacceptable behavior is not what they need. While I understand many of the students are already exposed to theseissues, the vast majority if not 100% of them are not mature enough to handle theseissues or deconstruct any associatedramification for becoming involved inmany of the adult situation the plays mentioned present. More important, based on what I witness as Itravel day-to-day, perhaps students need to be exposed to those issues thatpromote restraint, appropriate public behavior and respect. Those plays will be there when the time comesfor them to be exposed to them and they possess the maturity level to digestthe information. I could be wrong and I havebeen, but I think we need to remember why theatre is a part of those few educationalsettings that allow time for it. While Ichampion pushing the button, I think we need to do things appropriate for schoolsettings. That's one of the chief reasonsso many students and parents alike get it real twisted when the topic of appropriateconduct is broached.

My teacher has worked at my high school For 4 years and only close to 150 kids have ben in her department. 40 of thoughs kids went on to college level Theater. Thats only because every year she pushes us to do harder and more adult Plays. When we went to Thespian it wasint the happy monolog that got one of her students a superior rating. It was the one about rape. Shes going to get full ride scholarships To huge schools now just because of that. Thats the very same reason why when most schools drama programs are geting shut down shes getting a conservatory.

This "violent epidemic that is silently ravaging high schools across the country" has been going on for a long, long time. I'm not sure I've ever heard of any violence associated with the idea that the school community should have the right to oversee what activities take place at the school, but maybe there was one and maybe schools have been "ravaged" by it, but I'm skeptical. Free speech is protected by the US constitution, not by the school administration, school board or any other local public entity. Is the lack of school sanctioned Klan rallies, anti-gay events, or church services in your school day making you angry too? As far as I can tell, there is nothing keeping the drama students of Boston-area schools from joining together and doing a production of the Motherf*cker With The Hat or some other provocative piece of theater. They just can't do it in Public schools. And it's not just new plays. You probably can't do the original versions of Showboat, Annie Get Your Gun, You Can't Take It With You and many other classic plays because they reflect a relationship to race that is no longer accepted. But more importantly, stop your damn whining about it. No school or any other entity needs to "allow" you to produce a challenging show. Boston is full of theater companies and theaters, Find a space and do it and stop using centrist school values as some sort of a hurdle.

"Free speech is protected by the US constitution"- okay"any other local public entity"- you mean, for example, the Constitutionally based Federalist branches of government- for example, state and local governments, and which run and staff the public school boards, right?"They just can't do it in Public schools"- Wait a moment...

That's self-contradictory there, sir. You cannot have an organization founded under a document that protects free speech denying the write to free expression.

I disagree that public schools are not where the issue should be tackled. They're EXACTLY the forum edgy topics should be taken to- organizations founded on the basis of the State. Private schools are at risk of crippling financial loss should someone take offense to their productions- as they have a much greater fiscally implemented "in loco parentis" obligation. So yes, public schools certainly should 'allow' such plays to be put on.

But an even more pressing issue- WHY are private school systems so afraid of free, and possibly offensive, expression? Because they can be sued for damages. But dramatic theatres can't be- and I ask, WHY? Private schools are just as much private enterprises as an acting group in the Boston area- it seems insane that they can be prosecuted so dangerously, while others can't. High school is the exact forum we should be raising these issues- not banning them, and teaching children that being sheep slave to public sensibilities is how artists ought to keep themselves.

I happen to attend the same school as the author. I was there when "Laughter on the 23rd" got pillaged by censors- a play ABOUT the horrors of censorship. We almost choked on the irony. In English, we're allowed to read books that have foul language and mature themes- in fact, we were required to read novels and plays such as "The Catcher in the Rye", "Snow in August", Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God", Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", and Graham Swift's "Waterland." Waterland explicitly dealt with scenes of sexual exploration, intercourse, and abortion. Snow in August swore constantly. Eyes Watching God has abusive relationships, overt racism, and sex-related violence. Yet put it to a public stage, and suddenly we're not allowed to address any of those ideas? Because it would "espouse views the school does not agree with"? How does that make sense? The answer is, quite simply, it doesn't.

"Jack Serio is a senior at Boston College High School and the Artistic Director of The Boston Teen Acting Troupe. Jack is also the recipient of 3 Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild Awards for his acting performances in The Kentucky Cycle, The Fifth Sun and Translations. He is also an active director and will be seen directing the New England Premiere of David West Read’s The Dream of The Burning Boy this spring at The Boston Center for The Arts. Past directing credits include All My Sons, Red, Art, Dog Sees God, God of Carnage, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me and The 39 Steps. Keep up with his antics at jserio.com."

Edit: Link to Boston Teen Acting Troupe: http://www.bostonteenacting...

That's exactly the kind of stuff that everyone complaining about why the arts are failing in the schools should know about. He is, I hope, a model to all the students who are sitting around waiting for permission to do challenging work.

These things also trickle upward, into colleges and universities. Much like a recent article on athletic hazing, behaviors don't necessarily come from the top down.

Jack, while I share your concerns, the story on RENT in Trumbull CT is slightly inaccurate and incomplete. The production was originally canceled just weeks before auditions began, and, after terrific efforts by the students and parent in the community, the show was reinstated. As for edited versions of GOD OF CARNAGE or RED, I wonder whether those alterations were approved by the licensing companies that administer the rights to the plays. When something like that becomes apparent, a judicious call to the licensing house, by contract listed in the program, can get some swift action. Finally, the list of most produced musicals you write about isn’t Playbill’s – it’s the work of the Educational Theatre Association, home to the International Thespian Society.